How an illegal logger’s switch to a greener job shows a way to save Indonesia’s forests
A climate finance scheme in Central Kalimantan is protecting peat forests while funding more viable livelihoods and better education. The programme Insight finds out more.
CENTRAL KALIMANTAN: He began illegally cutting trees when he was 13 or 14, after completing elementary school.
Central Kalimantan native Alianur had to help his parents out, so he accompanied his father on trips despite the risk of getting caught by the forestry police. Treks into the forest took two hours, he recalled.
The lack of education forced him to continue on this path. When he had a family of his own, logging missions meant being away from his wife and children for a month at a time.
“Sometimes I worked with friends, but sometimes I was alone, and the risk was quite high,” the 40-year-old told the programme Insight. “Inside, the forest was really calm. We could only hear the birds chirping.”
Alianur, who goes by one name, could cut 50 pieces of wood in a day, with each tree yielding two to three pieces about four metres in length. He said he could sell about eight cubic metres of wood a month to timber companies, earning eight million rupiah (S$740).
Three years ago, he decided to switch to making coconut sugar.
He received training by a company called Rimba Makmur Utama, which manages about 157,000 hectares of land including peat forests in Central Kalimantan. That is more than twice the size of Singapore.
And the company has adopted a climate finance model that could play an important role in saving Indonesia’s, and the world’s forests.
WATCH: Deforestation in Indonesia — A waiting world catastrophe? (3:02)
‘STRONGEST DEFENCE AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE’
Forests are the "strongest defence against climate change", said Kiki Taufik, global head of advocacy group Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s forest campaign.
But between 2001 and 2019, Indonesia lost 9.6 million hectares of forests, according to data from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. About 56 per cent of it happened in pulp and paper, palm oil and logging concessions, he said.
The country is now losing about 0.4 million hectares of forests a year, noted scientist Herry Purnomo of the Centre for International Forestry Research.
Rimba Makmur Utama, however, protects and restores the peat forests within its Ecosystem Restoration Concession granted by the government — in a project called Katingan Mentaya, named after two rivers that flow there.
Peatlands are made up of partially decomposed plant matter and store large amounts of carbon, which is released into the atmosphere if the land is drained or burned.
Peat fires have caused some of Southeast Asia’s worst haze episodes, including one in 2015 estimated to have caused over 100,000 premature deaths in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and US$16 billion (S$21.5 billion) in economic losses in Indonesia alone.
Rimba Makmur Utama also protects the habitats of species such as the Bornean orangutan and creates sustainable employment for local residents like Alianur.
“We can provide better livelihoods for them, better education, better health,” said chief executive Dharsono Hartono, who co-founded the company in 2007.
In doing so, it has avoided over 30 million tonnes in carbon emissions.
Its climate finance scheme sees companies such as automaker Volkswagen and energy giant Shell buying carbon credits or offsets as part of their climate commitments. Each credit is equivalent to a tonne of carbon dioxide, and the money funds Katingan Mentaya’s initiatives.
In general, forest carbon credits cost between US$5 and US$10 each.
Although 2020 was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Dharsono said it was a good year as clients continued to buy credits, certified by third parties.
“More and more, customers understand the value of protecting nature,” he said. “Of course, we still have a long way to go.”
Katingan Mentaya is part of REDD+ (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), a mechanism developed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that incentivises forest conservation by creating a financial value for the carbon stored.
WHAT MORE MUST INDONESIA DO?
Ruandha Agung Sugardiman, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s director general of climate change, said Indonesia aims to further reduce its annual rate of deforestation to 250,000 hectares by 2030.
“This is an extraordinary effort, especially on the part of law enforcement. Our main emphasis is on forest and land fires,” he said.
Spatial technology has made it easier to identify areas that have been illegally logged.
“Based on satellite images, we’d send our team and conduct an investigation on the ground. We’d know the size of the areas affected by illegal logging, the amount of wood and we can immediately calculate the damage,” he said.
“Big companies won’t be able to escape because of the extremely heavy sanctions. It could be administrative sanctions or criminal sanctions.”
Indonesia also aims to rehabilitate 12 million hectares of degraded land by 2030 using funds from its state budget and international supporters, said Ruandha. In addition, it aims to restore two million hectares of peatland by 2030.
Environmentalists said the authorities are heading in the right direction, but challenges such as transparency in land permits, enforcement and business interests persist.
The Omnibus Law passed last year aims to create jobs, but will weaken environmental protection, said Greenpeace’s Kiki. The building of the Trans-Papua Highway in Indonesia’s easternmost region threatens the Papuan forests, Indonesia’s “last forest frontier”, he added.
The lack of transparency and public access to Indonesia’s land concession maps also make it difficult to know where exactly various concessions lie — coal mining or oil palm, for instance — where they overlap and where community areas are, he cited.
WATCH: The full episode — Too little, too late for Asia’s largest rainforest? (48:50)
In the meantime, projects such as Katingan Mentaya are making a difference.
Citrus farmer Aliansyah, 55, used to clear land using the slash-and-burn technique, but stopped five years ago after he received training in alternative land-clearing methods.
“If you clear the land by burning it, the plants can only grow once. If we do it organically, the trees would grow well,” he said. “I support that approach.”
These days, Alianur gets to spend more time with his family in Sampit district and no longer has to worry about getting caught by the police.
In his former life, he was nabbed twice and said he had to pay bribes of around 500,000 rupiah each time to avoid jail.
Amid the pandemic, he can earn around four million rupiah a month — demand for coconut sugar, produced in Katingan Mentaya’s buffer zone and used in cooking and baking, has held up.
“If forests vanish, maybe people in Kalimantan will vanish too,” he said.
Watch this episode of Insight here. The programme airs on Thursdays at 9pm.